What TV Executives Don’t Understand About the Climate Emergency

Credit: 20th Century Fox
Still from The Day After Tomorrow
Baratunde Thurston
September 21, 2021

A few weeks ago, my friend Anand Giridharadas was preparing to guest host a show on MSNBC, and he asked if I could join him on set to provide some tongue-in-cheek commentary about the latest United Nations climate report. Because what’s friendship about, really, if not to be invited onto national television to gently mock the impending end of the world as we know it? 

I was pleasantly surprised to receive the call. Anand was, after all, the first person in the cable news universe to actually invite me to speak on these issues. I’m not a climate scientist, but I am on the record as supporting the continued habitability of the only planet that’s capable of supporting billions of human lives. 

Of course, I’ve been asked to come on air countless times to address some version of, “What horrible thing have Republicans done now?” Or “Racism. Still bad?”—both sugar-high segments intended to keep viewers awake until the next Flonase ad. But anytime I have pitched cable executives on new programming about the climate crisis—the greatest and most dramatic crisis our species has faced—I always heard some variation of the same excuse. They told me people weren’t smart enough to “get it”—while padding broadcast schedules with a parade of legal analysts. They told me it was too depressing—then proceeded to force-feed a nation endless speculation over the latest horrors of the 45th president for four years and counting. They told me there are no human stories—which translates to, “We haven’t bothered to find the stories of humans we don’t already talk about or listen to.”

Sadly, I wasn’t able to accept Anand’s invitation due to my schedule, but I decided to write down some of the thoughts that I would have shared . Herewith, Four Pieces of Good News Hidden in the WGI Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

1. They bothered to warn us at all
After decades of societies around the world accepting the science of botox and aerodynamics but denying the science of anthropogenic climate change, I’m honestly shocked that scientists continue to warn us at all. At some point I expected they would have invested in developing human gills, Waterworld-style, to improve their own chances of survival rather than waste their breath (and exhaled carbon dioxide) on us. But look at them, continuing to share facts in written form! It means they still care about us, and that feels nice. 

2. The graphics are awesome
The art department at the IPCC deserves some kind of visual communications award. There are so many types of charts, graphs, and illustrations, there’s likely to be something for everyone. You’ve got your classic line chart showing emissions shooting up and to the right like some sort of venture-capitalist fantasy. Another abstracts the seven continents into symmetrical, hexagonal shapes, which are color-coded to display the impact of extreme heat, heavy rainfall, and punishing drought. The colors! The use of white space! The horror is kind of beautiful. 

My favorite chart is titled, “The proportion of CO2 emissions taken up by land and ocean carbon sinks is smaller in scenarios with higher cumulative CO2 emissions.” To translate this, the IPCC art department raised the bar, choosing to pair a stacked column with a donut chart, which does a much better job of saying: the less action we take, the more carbon we emit, and despite the land and oceans holding ever more, the percentage they can handle declines. It’s a data visualization of the planet screaming, “I can’t breathe.” 

3. It’s shorter than I expected
When I opened the PDF and saw a page count of 3,949, my first thought was, “Am I about to read the Instagram terms of service?” But the meat of the report is summarized in the first 41 pages, or roughly 200 Instagram Reels, which is wonderfully digestible considering the level of detail included. 

4. Everybody hurts
I used to think there was a place we could all move to escape climate impacts—and no, it’s not Mars, because the operative word is all. But the good news is, nearly everywhere is going to suffer! So we can avoid spending too much time thinking about relocating to Svalbard. It’s gonna get worse pretty much everywhere. Of course, wealthier and whiter people who’ve disproportionately contributed to the crisis will disproportionately survive it, but that kind of analysis is beyond the scope of this IPCC report, thank goodness. 

More sincerely, the IPCC report is a marvel of global cooperation, a thing we’re told can’t happen anymore. Two hundred thirty four scientists representing 195 countries voluntarily analyzed over 14,000 climate research papers, and all agreed to the same conclusion: “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.” The report lays out possible climate futures in nuanced detail while reminding us that every partial degree of warming we avoid helps to preserve our home planet’s habitability. It’s a clarion call that the scientific community has been issuing, more or less nonstop, for decades. Why has it taken us so long to listen?

There’s plenty of blame to go around for us allowing the climate crisis to fester: an unaccountable, colonial-mindset capitalism that strip mines natural and human resources; a well-funded disinformation campaign by industries too addicted to past methods of making money to innovate new ones; the willful silencing of the voices of indigenous people who have lived in balance with our planet for thousands of years; a focus on individual behavioral changes (hello, recycling) instead of systems changes that would have a far greater impact (hello, U.S. military, which is the world’s single largest institutional consumer of petroleum).

Yet, high on the accountability list, we’d have to blame our chief storytellers in the news media who have ignored the biggest tragedy to unfold in our history, and in so doing, assured it would get bigger. The IPCC report that dropped in August didn’t just acknowledge unequivocally that human behavior has driven the climate impacts we’re experiencing, though that was a huge step. It also acknowledged that it’s too late to stop many of the worst impacts of our behavior on the climate. We can already feel some of those effects as “extreme” weather forecasts become simply weather to so many of us. We now experience “100-year” weather events, the term for catastrophes with a 1-percent chance of occurring in any given year, with terrifying regularity. We’ve put enough carbon in the atmosphere that even if we achieved negative global emissions today, higher sea levels are here for the next few millennia. 

That doesn’t mean we throw in the towel simply because we can’t be 100 percent successful. Remember, every avoided increase in temperature saves lives. It just means that we also have to adapt to the new environment we’ll be living in. Individually and collectively, through our businesses and governments, we need to build our world anew or risk losing having a world.

For our media storytellers, we don’t have a time machine either. We can’t go back and correct the fact that broadcast TV news spent only 50 minutes covering climate change in 2016. We can’t go back and have presidential climate debates we never had. But we can do better in the future, and we can start right now. 

We can tell the story of the crisis and how it’s connected to other crises—we need to link breaking news stories about floods, fires, and Central American migration, for example, to climate change. As important, we need to tell the stories of the people working to address this crisis, especially those whose stories we’ve ignored for so long. Take, for example, the David vs Goliath heroics of Mary Anne Hitt, the former national director of campaigns for the Sierra Club who led the successful Beyond Coal campaign that stopped over 200 new coal plants, helped retire two thirds of the coal plants in the nation and in so doing saved thousands of lives and billions of dollars in healthcare costs. Or Heather McTeer Toney, the former mayor of Greenville, Mississippi. When she led the EPA’s Southeast Region, she built a team that was nearly 90 percent Black women. Then she joined a group called Moms Clean Air Force which fights for clean air and just climate policies to ensure children’s health. 

My suggestions aren’t anything I’ve invented. They are based in some of the incredible climate storytelling that is happening in books like All We Can Save, edited by Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Dr. Katharine Wilkerson, and organizations like Covering Climate Now whose mission is to “help our news media colleagues cover the defining story of our time with the rigor and urgency it deserves.” 

There are so many stories like these ready to be amplified, with heroes, villains, collateral damage, corruption, redemption, investigations, lawsuits and more. Instead, our news media have been paralyzed and helped paralyze us when we’ve most needed to act. With a crisis like this, the best time to act is always now, because every moment matters.